March 6, 2023

Food As Medicine: Can Diet Heal As Well As Fuel You?

Remember the old saying “you are what you eat?” While this phrase is not literal, what we eat does have some impact on our health and wellbeing. If we eat a healthy, balanced diet and get good amounts of exercise, we are more likely to ward off illness and even certain diseases. By contrast, those who eat an imbalanced, unhealthy diet and live a sedentary life may be more prone to sickness.

But what about when we are already sick or injured? Can food as medicine be a valid way to promote recovery? Some experts say yes.

Food As Medicine Is Not A New Concept

While the idea of using food as a form of medicine is only now gaining traction in many parts of the Western world, it has been a common feature of cultures in other parts of the globe for centuries. For example, there is plenty of evidence that food and herbal remedies have been traditionally used to treat and prevent illness and disease in Chinese culture.

Of course, like all complementary treatments, the use of food as medicine is not always effective, and will generally not be as effective as traditional medical intervention. However, research does suggest that the traditional practices of using food as a form of medicine that we see around the world are based on good science. Certain foods can help to:

How Food Protects And Repairs Our Bodies

Food can be a powerful ally when it comes to treating and preventing illness. We eat daily to maintain our bodies, after all, and a balanced diet ensures that we get what we need for our bodies to function properly.

In many cases, illness, infection, diseases, or injuries can result from or cause poor function in certain parts of the body. For example, a poorly supported immune system makes us more susceptible to infection and illness, but a strong immune response can dispatch viruses and bacteria more easily.

Likewise, the body needs energy to repair injury, and food provides that energy, but the right food in balance with a healthy lifestyle can also make us less vulnerable to injury.

Eating nutritious, balanced foods is important because this kind of diet provides our bodies with:

  • Vitamins
  • Minerals
  • Fiber
  • Protein
  • Healthy fats
  • Positive plant compounds (e.g. antioxidants)

While some foods also contain less healthy ingredients, such as sugars, saturated fats, and processed substances, these foods still give our body fuel and nutrition. There may be foods that are better for your body, but there is no such thing as a totally ‘bad’ food.

When you’re eating for medicinal effect, however, macro- and micro-nutrients become more important.

What Are Macro- And Micro-Nutrients?

Macro- and micro-nutrients are terms used by nutritionists and dietitians to refer to the types of nutrients in your diet. Macro-nutrients are the major nutrients that the body needs to fuel itself every day. These include:

  • Carbohydrates
  • Fats
  • Protein

These three ingredients are the building blocks of the human body. They are necessary for maintaining, repairing, and fueling you.

Micro-nutrients are needed in smaller amounts, hence the term “micro.” While macro-nutrients are measured in grams, micro-nutrients are measured in milligrams, but they are equally important in many ways. Micro-nutrients include vitamins and minerals such as:

  • Calcium
  • Folate
  • Iron
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin D
  • B Vitamins

Of course, there are many more, but these are the most recognizable micro-nutrients. These nutrients can help to protect our body from illness and injury by supporting the immune system, bone, skin, hair, and nail health, and generally giving the body what it needs to do more than just survive.

Most of the foods we think of as “healthy” are those with high levels of micro-nutrients and antioxidative properties.

Food As Preventative Medicine

There are two main ways to use food as a form of medicine:

  • Preventative medicine
  • A treatment or way to control symptoms

Generally speaking, it is easier and more effective to use food as a preventative medicine. Eating a healthy, balanced diet that contains the right macro- and micro-nutrients can support your immune system, slow premature signs of aging, and keep your body in the best possible state to fight off infections and illnesses, all while minimizing the likelihood of diseases.

For example, one study found that diets which focus on foods that have anti-inflammatory properties (such as ginger, honey, and turmeric) can reduce the risk of heart disease. Likewise, a diet that is high in fiber can help to prevent certain gastrointestinal conditions by keeping your bowel movements healthy and regular. There are many who argue that food is most effective as a preventative medicine, and in many cases they are right.

It is far easier to increase your chance of avoiding heart, stomach, or skin problems by eating well and having a healthy lifestyle than it is to treat serious issues with food. In some cases, especially where the disease or illness is severe, it can be impossible to treat an issue with food. However, there are some conditions where the right diet can speed recovery, or help to manage the symptoms more effectively.

Food For Treatment And Symptom Control

Using food as a reactive form of medicine – that is to say, using it to treat illness – is less reliable than using your diet to minimize the risk of disease and illness. However, there are some small illnesses where the right diet can help aid recovery.

For example, having a diet high in vitamin C and D could help you to recover from the common cold or flu more quickly. That’s because these vitamins support the immune system and help your body to repair itself.

Likewise, eating a diet which is filled with anti-inflammatory foods may help in the management of chronic pain where it is associated with inflammation of the muscles, skin, or cartilage. One notable case where food is an effective treatment for the symptoms of a lifelong condition is when women have PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome). While PCOS is a hormonal issue that cannot really be ‘cured’, some research shows that eating a diet geared towards lowering insulin resistance and inflammation can seriously reduce the symptoms and increase a woman’s quality of life.

This is usually the case when it comes to using food as medicine; the preventative capabilities of healthy foods can keep us healthier for longer, but once an illness or disease sets in, traditional medicine is often more effective. Leading a healthier, happier life is all about balancing food, exercise, and medical intervention when each is most appropriate.

Can Food Be Good For Mental Health?

Just as food can prevent and treat physical illnesses, there may be a link between diet and mental health. This is partly to do with the physical benefits. After all, if our bodies are healthy, we are not struggling with fatigue or pain, and they do everything we need them to, it’s easier to feel happy.

However, there is a purely mental element too; our relationship with food is very important to our emotional and mental health, as well as our self-esteem. So, while what you eat may not have a direct impact on your mental health, the way you eat and how you feel about food could be very important to your happiness.